Ever been told to chin up, ignore a setback, or “get over it”? Well, it’s easier said than done for some people. If you’re among them, a Mediclinic psychologist has advice on how to think positive and boost your mental resilience.

Popular culture favours affirmations that imply it’s easy to be resilient – you know what you’re meant to do when life hands you lemons. But while some people are naturally optimistic, others struggle to cope with life’s challenges.

The ability to handle setbacks is called resilience. “To be resilient means you’re able to endure and bounce back from trauma or adversity,” explains Dr Pieter du Plessis, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Denmar Mental Health Services. And two in three people can do just that. “Even after experiencing trauma, two thirds of people don’t exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but rather post-traumatic growth; in other words, they grow stronger after the trauma and learn from the experience. That is an example of resilience. On the other hand, about a third develop PTSD, because they lack the resilience to cope with the effects of the trauma.”

Optimism as the base for resilience

A generally optimistic mindset, Dr Du Plessis explains, is linked to resilience. “It means you have a positive outlook and believe you can manage and overcome challenges. Optimistic people tend to view difficulties as temporary and controllable, which fosters a sense of hope and motivation. Being naturally optimistic enhances your ability to adapt, cope, and rebound from adversities.” Put simply, optimism fuels resilience.

“Resilient individuals approach challenges with a combination of adaptability, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills,” says Dr Du Plessis. “That means resilient people don’t allow themselves to become overwhelmed by their emotions, but instead process their feelings in a healthy way. They look for the lessons and opportunities that come with challenges rather than dwelling on the setbacks. It’s easy to feel trapped in a bad situation, but resilient people can look for alternative solutions that aren’t immediately apparent to someone who is caught up in the negative.”

Fortunately, optimism is a habit that can be learnt.

The power of a positive mindset

Positive psychology is all about focusing on the good things in a person’s life to help them live happily and purposefully. “It doesn't ignore the difficulties and problems people face, but instead of just concentrating on what's wrong when someone has a mental disorder, for example, it also emphasises developing their strengths, explains Dr Du Plessis. “It's important to look at what's strong in an individual, not just what's wrong.”

If you’re a person who is naturally pessimistic, you could use this approach to reframe your outlook, he says. First, focus on your strengths and the positives in your life by asking yourself:

  • How did I come this far in my life?
  • What adversities did I manage in the past?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What are three things that are good in my life or that I can still be grateful for?

“Once you’ve identified your strengths, you can use them to remind yourself that you can handle the current situation and that this challenge, too, shall pass.”

Two steps to switch from negative to positive

1. Pause the downward spiral: Negative thoughts have a way of spiralling and once they gain momentum, any attempt at positive thought tends to fail. “Be aware of pessimistic thought patterns,” cautions Dr Du Plessis. “When the spiral of negative thoughts starts, visualise a ‘stop’ sign in your mind and breathe consciously to calm yourself. You might want to use this simple breathing technique: Inhale to the count of six, hold the breath to the count of four, and then very slowly breathe out.”

2. Reframe your thoughts: “Be very specific about the negative thoughts. When you’re spiralling, you’re probably catastrophising and overgeneralising, telling yourself things like, ‘Everything is a total mess! I can’t handle this! I’m a failure!’ Instead, shift your focus to your strengths and consider: ‘What is still good about the situation? What good might come through this? What can I learn from this experience?’”

As with anything, changing your outlook won’t happen overnight, but with practice and the help of a mental health professional, even a lifelong pessimist can learn to find the positive and build their resilience against any adverse situation.

To find a mental healthcare professional, visit www.mediclinic.co.za.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.